The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker – Lauren James

Twenty minutes before her death, Harriet Stoker stared up at the hazard signs peppering the entrance of Mulcture Hall. The signs were very informative, stating in huge black letters: DANGER – DERELICT BUILDING! THIS BUILDING HAS BEEN FOUND TO CONTAIN ASBESTOS; UNSTABLE STRUCTURE – UNAUTHORIZED PEOPLE FOUND ON THIS SITE WILL BE PROSECUTED and DANGER OF ELECTROCUTION! Harriet was impressed. Confident of her life choices, she began to climb the chain-link fence. Harriet thought that even when newly built, Mulcture Hall must have looked like a place where architecture came to die. The colourful graffiti covering the pebbledash walls didn’t detract from the overwhelming greyness of the old halls of residence. She picked her way carefully through nettles to the entrance. It was nearly dusk, so she used her phone to shine a light through a crack between the plywood boards covering a window. When a face lunged at her from the other side, Harriet skidded back on her heels. She laughed. It was her own reflection. She inserted a crowbar into the gap. The board came loose in a cloud of cobwebs and sawdust, and the glass of the window smashed with the first tap of her crowbar. With her hands wrapped in her woollen scarf to protect against the broken shards, Harriet climbed through. Her stomach was squirming in excitement. She’d been imagining this moment for weeks, wondering what might be inside the building when she was supposed to be paying attention to lectures or helping her gran with housework.

There were endless legends about Mulcture Hall, passing from final-year students to freshers in a decades-old gossip chain. It was rumoured to be a local drug dealer’s base of operations, and the entrance to a secret underground government facility. It was also apparently haunted by the ghosts of students and workers who had died here back in 1994. Supposedly, the halls hadn’t been demolished yet because the Biology Department was running some kind of long-term experiment on fungal growth. Harriet wasn’t sure she believed any of the myths. The building smelt worse than she thought it would – a foul mix of damp and urine. The stairwell was filled with beer cans and ashes left by other trespassers. Wrinkling her nose, she took a picture with her expensive camera, which she’d borrowed from the uni’s photography department. Her lecturers would probably think the mess was artistic. Climbing the concrete steps, she peered up over the banister at the remains of the roof several storeys above.

Then she turned and looked at the first floor. There were doors falling off their hinges along either side of a narrow corridor. The nearest had been propped open, but someone had kicked in the lower half. She slid through the narrow gap between the door and the frame, trying not to get dirt on her clothes. Harriet always chose her outfits very carefully. Today, she was going incognito, so she was wearing a charcoal-grey shirt tucked into khaki trousers. A thin mattress was rotting on the floor of the small student bedroom beyond. Rubbish had collected in gaps between floorboards – a mix of bottles and crisp packets and the springs of an armchair. The walls were black with moisture. Harriet took pictures of the intricate cracks in a greenish mirror; an enamel sink turned orange by the steady drip of the tap; neon graffiti distorted by peeling paint like a long-lost cave painting.

It was even better than she’d imagined. For her last photography project, Harriet had submitted half a dozen pictures of the ducks by the campus lake. Her feedback had said that even the most technically proficient pictures were unsuccessful if there was no emotional resonance. She’d only got sixty per cent for it. While Harriet didn’t mind being called emotionless, she did want a good grade. Anyway, that wouldn’t be an issue this time – the building was unbelievably atmospheric. She climbed the next two floors, peeping around open doors into other wrecked and ransacked bedrooms. The building had the sad, historical gloom of a bombsite, she thought, rolling phrases for her report through her mind. In a tiny kitchenette on the fourth floor, there was an ashtray on the counter, still full of a squatter’s half-burnt curls of Rizla cigarette paper. Next to it lay a yellowing newspaper.

She peeled open its mummified pages, catching sight of the words Diana and Blair before the paper collapsed into fragments. FELIX Felix heard the music first, drifting faint and muted from headphones as someone walked past. It took a huge effort for him to summon up the energy to open his eyes. When he managed it, there was nothing left of the intruder but a line of footprints in the dust. Someone was here. A human. They must be playing music on a Walkman. It had been so long since he’d last seen someone come inside the building. He’d imagined this moment for ever, but now that it was happening, all he felt was – tired. He was exhausted.

Felix should probably investigate the stranger. But the stairs alone seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle. Whoever it was would probably find their own way out. There was nothing in Mulcture Hall any more, not for a human. Felix closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep. HARRIET Harriet adjusted the focus of her camera to capture a fern growing out of the top-floor banister, its fronds curling towards the light from beyond the collapsed roof. She caught a glimpse of darting movement in the periphery of her vision and spun around. Glass crunched under her feet, as her heart tripped over itself. There was nothing but her own shadow, cast across the stairwell in the last remnants of twilight. She needed to calm down.

The building was making her skittish. She was alone here. She was safe. Harriet’s phone rang, distracting her from the shadows. She pushed back her headphones to answer. “How do you get iPlayer up again?” her gran asked, instead of a greeting. Harriet patiently guided her grandmother through the process of selecting Autumnwatch on BBC iPlayer – a nightly occurrence. She should tell her gran where she was. She had been the one to suggest Harriet come to Mulcture Hall to take photos for her project, after all. They’d walked past it when they’d toured the University of Warwick campus on an open day the year before.

But her gran definitely hadn’t meant that Harriet should come here alone, at night. She would be worried about her safety. When she heard the theme music of Autumnwatch playing, she said, “I’ve gotta go, Gran – I’m finishing my photography coursework. I’ll see you later.” But her gran had already hung up. She hated it when Harriet talked through her favourite programme. Norma had raised her ever since she was ten, after her parents had died. When she’d been accepted into university, Harriet had originally paid for a room in halls on campus, wanting to live away from home for the first time. But a few weeks before classes had started, her grandmother had tripped fetching the post in the morning and broken her ankle. Harriet had cancelled the rent payment so that she could live at home and look after her.

It was only a thirty-minute commute to the university, and the campus library was open all night, so she always had somewhere to go after the bars had closed. She never opened any of the books, but the WiFi connection was very strong, which was all she ever needed anyway. At least there, she didn’t need to go to bed at 9 p.m. so that she didn’t keep her gran awake. Harriet usually filmed make-up tutorials in the stacks, recording herself contouring her cheekbones against a background of law books. It was less embarrassing to do it at night, when the only people who saw her were exhausted PhD students running on caffeine. She could handle talking to them. It was the students her own age who made her nervous. It was starting to rain through the broken roof, in cold, heavy drops that ran straight down the nape of her neck.

Shivering, she suddenly missed her overly warm room at home. She could picture her gran sitting under a blanket on the sofa, with the electric fire roaring and the cat stretched out on the hearth. Twisting to watch the flight path of a plane as it passed overhead, her foot caught on something. Harriet tripped over the edge of the stairwell, with nothing below her but five storeys of open air and the concrete floor of the foyer. She dropped her phone, throwing her hands out to grab on to something. Her heart thundered. Her camera fell first, unhooking from around her neck and crashing to the ground into a thousand shards. Then Harriet followed. It happened too fast for her to scream anywhere except inside her own mind. Her head bounced off a jutting steel beam, spraying blood as she twisted over once, twice before she landed with an audible crack of bones on the floor.

A pool of blood dripped from the split in her skull, gathering on the lurid green moss. Everything went black. There it is. The death that started it all. It’s interesting, seeing it from this angle. I’ve only ever seen it from the past before. It would have been easy to stop it happening. Just a little bit of pressure here and there – a nudge to take her down the stairs instead of walking up them. And nothing would have happened the way it did. Father was always doing things like that when he was here.

And later, when he… Sorry, sorry, you don’t know about that yet, do you? I suppose I should go in chronological order. Everything just makes more sense if you look at it backwards. For now, let’s go back to where Harriet Stoker is lying in her own blood. She’s undeniably, irrevocably, dead. Below her, a fern is being slowly crushed. Above her, the shadows are gathering to watch.

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